Half a dozen or so dedicated souls wish to be elected next month to the two-year job of Utah Democratic Party state chairman.

I've tried to think of some witty comparisons to this job:

• Safety officer on the Titanic.

• Coach of the 2004-05 Utah Jazz.

• Legislative lobbyist for Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson.

• Person in charge of seating at the pope's funeral.

Yes, being responsible for getting Democrats elected in Utah must seem like a thankless job.

"I do thankless jobs," says Wayne Holland Jr., the odds-on favorite to succeed current chairman Donald Dunn in a vote by state delegates in the Democratic Convention May 7.

Others are challenging Holland. But the 46-year-old steel worker union representative has the endorsements of key leading Democrats, including Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, who recently told the Deseret Morning News editorial board he believes Holland will be the next chairman.

"I feel confident I can win," Holland said Thursday as he gears up for his final push for delegate votes.

Notice that Holland didn't say "hopeless" or "lost" in defining the Utah Democratic Party chairman's post.

Last year, Holland worked three months traveling around the Western states on behalf of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

And he found that the populations of Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and other states are changing.

Democrats have won some statewide races in those states.

"We haven't seen that success here. It's time we do," says Holland, who believes Democrats can make some important gains over the next two years.

But except for former Attorneys General Paul Van Dam and Jan Graham, Democrats have not won a statewide race in Utah in 25 years. (Of note, Van Dam dropped out of the Demo chairman race last week after it was clear Holland had wrapped up key support.)

It's not that Utah Democrats hold no power.

Matheson has won the 2nd Congressional District three straight times, twice after the GOP-controlled Legislature redistricted the district in 2001, pushing Matheson into eastern and southern Utah, Republican strongholds.

And just last November, Democrats Peter Corroon and Jenny Wilson won important Salt Lake County races.

But Democrat Scott Matheson Jr. (Jim's older brother) lost handily to GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. in a race many predicted would be closer.

And Van Dam didn't come near U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, in that statewide race.

Democrats haven't been able to make any real gains in the Utah Legislature, either, where they still remain below two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate.

Unlike Dunn, Holland said he will not take a party salary if elected chairman. Dunn was successful at fund raising and paid himself a $75,000 a year salary in a post that historically has been unpaid.

Holland said he will be taking a paid leave from his United Steelworkers of America job for the two-year chairman's term, so he will still be drawing his union wage.

Holland said he's used to working hard at organizing, fund raising and strategic planning for his union work and will bring those skills to the state party.

2006 is what is known as an off-year election — no U.S. presidential contest.

The Kerry/George Bush race of last year sucked hundreds of millions of dollars out of other political contests.

"Democrats usually do better in off-year elections" in Utah, said Holland.

In 1986, for example, Utah Democrats gained 13 Utah House seats, shocking Republicans and becoming, for a time, a player in state politics.

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But the heavily red Utah shifted back to more normal voting patterns. Democrats have lost so many seats since that two years ago Senate Democrats had so few numbers they couldn't have a member at each of the Legislature's joint budget subcommittees, which all meet at the same time.

"Utahns deserve a choice," said Holland. And in the 2005 municipal races and 2006 congressional, legislative and county races, Democrats will target contests they believe they can win.

The demographics in the West may be changing. But Utah remains one of the most Republican states in the nation.

And heading the Utah Democratic Party remains a thankless job.


Deseret Morning News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews.com